Radical Gratitude in the Redwoods

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by k.c.klein

Recorded by author

Photo by k.c.klein

It’s a cold November morning in this circle of Redwood trees on trails deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I am blindfolded, being led by a stranger through slick mossy forest, where a single misstep could plunge me to my knees. The stranger guiding me is cautious, not only of my well-being but also watchful that I do not tread on the Redwood saplings and banana slugs underfoot, all those Beings who through increasingly severe wildfires and worsening drought conditions are still managing to carry on in this wild place they call home. 

And we are all losing so much in this time of mounting vanishments

I’ve come to these Redwoods as part of a two-year-long Buddhist Eco-Chaplaincy training that I am pursuing alongside a few dozen other participants. We are an international cohort with varying pathways to this program—we are social justice and climate activists, deeply-worried parents and grandparents, retired and current ecologists, divinity students, and myself, a writer and funeral director who has witnessed time and time again that for as vast as our world is, there is no place beyond the reach of grief in the face of loves lost. And we are all losing so much in this time of mounting vanishments. That is why we are gathered, willing to be led unseeing into the forest, to mute the mind and try to listen.

During this week-long retreat—one of twelve throughout our two-year training—I am staying down the hill with my husband and our small rescue dog in a rented cabin. At night, our pup curls up between us in bed for warmth against the chill of an oncoming winter. 

The cabin’s second bedroom remains empty. A nursery with a crib, the walls decorated with paintings of wildlife—an elephant adorned in a crown of wildflowers, a monarch butterfly mid-upward-flight toward a milkweed stalk. Admittedly, the nursery is a room that since arriving, I have lacked the capacity to contemplate. 

To be a Buddhist is to recognize the interdependence of all Life on Earth, that all living Beings are kin, that every action affects the whole.

What is a Buddhist Eco-Chaplain? It’s difficult to say, precisely, as the term is nascent, my cohort only the third to receive such training. To be a Buddhist is to recognize the interdependence of all Life on Earth, that all living Beings are kin, that every action affects the whole. To be a Buddhist is also to commit one’s gaze toward suffering.

“Eco,” quite simply, means “home.” And a Chaplain walks alongside another in times of grief, doubt, and fear. So one might say a Buddhist Eco-Chaplain accompanies all Beings on our shared home, Earth, in this time of accelerating climatic change, offering our attention to the rising suffering.

Photo by k.c.klein

On the last day of retreat, as my husband and I pack up, I do a quick sweep of the nursery for our dog’s beloved hedgehog toy, which has gone missing. She suckles on this toy nightly to self-soothe, because the year of her life before we all found each other still haunts her. I’m on my knees, one hand searching blindly beneath the empty crib, when I pull out a Jenga block, a game I’ve played often, but never really considered. The rules of Jenga are simple: avoid collapse. Circumvent downfall by deftly taking further from an already fragile structure, deferring uncertainty to the next player. The game ends when the tower comes crashing down. 

we have decided not to have children given the state of our Earth.

Pushing thoughts of ruin from my mind, I continue my search for the hedgehog, eager to leave behind this nursery that my husband and I cannot bring ourselves to fill as we have decided not to have children given the state of our Earth. 

But holding this block in my hand now, after a week of Buddhist Eco-Chaplaincy training in the parched Redwoods, the familiar game poses new considerations—about how any portion of the tower collapsing means the end of the game for all players. Of the sacrifices made and still to be made as the effects of our warming planet further manifest. How all those who have contributed the least to climate change are already suffering the harshest consequences. And of the tree Being from whom this game piece was carved.

At the door, my hand lingers on the light switch in that stance of goodnight that is the quintessence of parenthood. Mother or father standing guard at the threshold, surveying the domain of the peacefully sleeping child, as another day spent shepherding the future’s best hope draws to a close. 

I feel that it is time to name this grief.

Though I’ve wanted to shut out this nursery since we first arrived, now something in me is shifting—and I feel that it is time to name this grief. 

To acknowledge it fully, rather than defer it to the next couple who will someday visit this cabin and have to reconcile their own decision in the shadow of an empty crib. Holding the Jenga block in my hand, I say aloud—“Jane.” This is the name of my grandmother, the name I always planned to give my daughter, back when I believed I would someday surely become a mother. “Jane,” this time softer, my eyes moving from the crib to the elephant in her flowering crown, then finally to the monarch forever ascending. 

My husband calls out to me that the hedgehog has resurfaced and that it’s time for us to go. With the Jenga block pressed between the palms of my hands, silently, as if not to wake the baby who isn’t here, I bow to the nursery and turn out the lights on this tender place of my pain, on the collective grief of this world in which we cannot keep safe even that which we cherish most.

In my training, we are taught that our role as chaplains is largely to hold space for grief. Grief that cannot be fixed or cured—but must be felt deeply, truthfully, and likely for a lifetime, though some would say longer still. 

we are each more than our grief, as we are also our gratitude.

But we are also taught that we are each more than our grief, as we are also our gratitude.

That further still, gratitude is an act both radical and revolutionary, for when we are deep in gratitude, in wonder and awe of all that we do still have—a husband, a dog, a sangha of aspiring Buddhist Eco-Chaplains in service of the suffering of all Life, and a home planet of biodiversity suspended in an inky black cosmos—our grief is, at least for the moment, balanced with joy. In gratitude, we can inhale deeply, count what remains, then begin this long process of dismantling the faulty tower and from there rebuilding as a community, all the while treading lightly in the darkening days of an advancing winter, so as to spare the lives of the Redwood saplings and banana slugs underfoot.

Recorded by author

k.c.klein is a former ethologist with a lifelong passion for conservation of the natural world and environmental justice. Her work has been published in The Spotlong Review and The Mindfulness Bell. She is currently in training with the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies as an Eco-Chaplain. Beyond her writing life, k.c. is also a licensed funeral director and death midwife with a deep commitment to sustainable and equitable death care. She lives in San Diego with her husband and canine daughter.


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